I usually struggle with ideas for healthy lunches, but recently I’ve been having success with this modular approach. Using a template and a set of base components, it is possible to create a multitude of delicious, healthy lunch recipes. I like to eat vegan when I can (for environmental and animal rights purposes) but this technique can be adapted to other diets as well.

Template

  • 4+ vegetables (2+ raw)
  • 1+ protein
  • 1+ carbohydrate
  • A sauce (from vegetables, fruits, or other sauce components)
  • (Optional) fruit

I aim for at least 2 raw veg because I usually don’t eat raw foods at dinner time, everything is cooked, so I balance that with lunches to maximise the breadth of my nutrition profile. Also, this usually means the meal is quicker to prep: some things like sauces need preparing beforehand, but they can be done the previous day and left in the fridge.

I like a range of colours in the dish, both for nutritional profile, and also because I like colourful things and it makes the food look appealing!

Sauce is important because not only does it provide another layer of flavours to a dish, but critically it provides moisture, which makes the whole dish more pleasant to eat. For example, I love falafel, but if my meal was just falafel and rice and some raw veggies, it would be too dry and perhaps even difficult to eat. A good sauce can take food from ‘a meal’ to ‘a delicious meal’.

Ingredients

  • Vegetable
    • Red
      • Tomato
      • Red pepper
    • Orange
      • Carrot
      • Orange pepper
    • Yellow
      • Sweetcorn
      • Yellow pepper
    • Green
      • Spinach
      • Broccoli
      • Kale
      • Lettuce
      • Chard
      • Rocket
      • Cress
      • Parsley
      • Coriander
      • Cucumber
      • Courgette
      • Asparagus
      • Pea
      • Spring onion
    • White
      • Green cabbage
      • White / yellow onion
      • Cauliflower
      • Mushroom
    • Purple
      • Red cabbage
      • Beetroot
      • Red onion
      • Aubergine
      • Beetroot
  • Fruit
    • Apple
    • Orange
    • Grape
  • Protein
    • Chickpeas
    • Beans (black turtle, white, broad, …)
    • Lentils
    • Oats
    • Seeds
    • Nuts (cashew, walnut, peanut, …)
  • Carbohydrate
    • Bread
      • Flatbread (may be wrappable)
      • Sliced for sandwich
      • Croutons (diced toast!)
    • Rice
    • Potato
      • Boiled
      • Mashed
      • Roasted
      • Baked
    • Noodles
  • Sauce ingredient
    • Oil
    • Vinegar
    • Tahini
    • Soy sauce
    • Hot sauce (sriracha, Tabasco, …)
    • Marmite
    • Mustard
    • Lemon / lime juice

I organise vegetables by colour so I can easily build a rainbow of veggies.

Virtually every vegetable and fruit can be used to make a sauce: it either naturally forms a sauce when cooked (like tomatoes), or it can be cooked appropriately and mashed or blended into a purée. This also applies to many protein sources, particularly beans, seeds and nuts.

Most fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways, but this is largely a matter of personal taste. I will happily eat a good wadge of raw coriander or parsley as if it were a regular salad leaf, and I am happy with raw broccoli – but it becomes a magical crispy umami machine when it’s roasted (seriously, if you’ve never had roasted broccoli you are missing out!).

Sauce ingredients are ancillary: some work fine as sauces by themselves (tahini, some types of hot sauce like sriracha), but usually they are combined together or with other ingredients to create a complete sauce.

The key to a good ingredients list is knowing what you can readily source when you go shopping. Write a list of everything you can think of that is available from your regular shopping establishments and categorise the ingredients to fit your meal template.

Composites

Composites are not complete meals in themselves, but they are combinations of basic ingredients which can be prepared in advance and then used as components of a meal. Some meals consist of only straight ingredients, but usually they are a combination of one or more composites and then some ingredients.

Here is a selection of just a few composites you can use. They are all great to prepare ahead of time and keep in the fridge for a few days, ready to combine into a meal at lunch time.

Protein

Baked falafel

To make 12-16 falafel:

  • 2 cups chickpeas
  • Fresh coriander, chopped
  • Fresh parsley, chopped
  • ~1 tsp ground cumin
  • ~1 tbsp lemon or lime juice
  • ~1 tbsp olive oil
  • Pinch of salt

I start with 1 cup of dried chickpeas and boil them up until they are cooked and have bite to them, as I would use them in a salad or other dish. You can use a mixture of chickpeas and broadbeans. Use as much coriander and parsley as you like. I don’t measure my cumin, citrus juice, or oil, I just eyeball everything and adjust to taste.

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Smash, grind or blend the mixture into a heterogeneous paste: you want some whole and half-broken chickpeas in there for a good texture, remember you are making falafel not houmous! Form golf ball sized patties with your hands and place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Lightly squish the balls so they are slightly flat on top and bottom – this creates more surface area in contact with the baking tray to facilitate browning. Bake in a 180°C oven for 40 minutes, flipping halfway through. Ideally cooked, the falafel should have some crispy browning on the flat sides and should be dry and crispy to the touch all over.

Sauce

Spicy tomato and carrot
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1-2 handfuls grated carrot
  • Diced chilli pepper, powdered cayenne, or hot sauce, to your preference
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • Pinch of salt

Dump everything in a sauce pan, bring to a boil, and reduce on low heat until it achieves the desired consistency – I find once it hits half of the original volume it is about right, but this laregly depends on how watery your tomatoes are. You can use fresh tomatoes, but I always have tinned tomatoes in for making other dishes so I find this easier, and tinned tomatoes need less watching and less oil because so much of their juice has already been liberated.

The carrot is very important, because it cancels out the acidity of the tomatoes.

Mustard vinaigrette
  • Olive oil
  • Vinegar
  • Mustard

Ah, the classic salad dressing. I add mustard because I like mustard! As usual I just eyeball the proportions based on how I’m feeling that day: usually you want more oil than vinegar, but I make my vinaigrette just before I use it, I don’t prepare it in advance, so I am not bothered about creating a stable emulsion. That said, it is easier to mix if you whisk the oil and vinegar into an emulsion first, and then add the mustard. I like French mustard because it is milder than English mustard and has a sweet fruity note which goes great as part of a vinaigrette.

And when I say ‘whisk’, what I mean is ‘beat in a cup with a fork, which I then use to eat the salad’. You don’t need to create loads of washing up to cook meals or make components, be lazy and find the hacks and shortcuts which work for you. 😉

Satay
  • Peanut butter
  • Water
  • Soy sauce
  • Lime juice
  • (Optional) sriracha

There is a bit of an art to making satay sauce, for two reasons: first, peanut is a very strong flavour and it can be quite intense, and second, peanut butter and water do not naturally mix. The trick to a good satay is to add a bit of water first to loosen the peanut butter and dilute the flavour, before adding the other ingredients.

Start with one heaped teaspoon of peanut butter per portion, and add one teaspoon of water. Mix the peanut butter into the water using a mashing-smearing motion: you are effectively folding the water into the peanut butter by increasing the surface area of the peanut butter and trapping the water between the layers. It will take some time and at first it may seem like you are just granulating the peanut butter and sloshing water around, but keep at it and it will eventually combine.

Once the initial water is incorporated, the peanut butter will take the other ingredients more easily. I like more soy than lime. Lemon juice would probably work too but I have only tried lime and I like the sherberty tang that lime has which I find lacking in lemon – that fruity sweetness pairs nicely with the peanuts. Add as much water as you need to get the consistency and flavour intensity to your liking.

Other ideas

Some composite sauces I don’t have recipes for yet and/or which you might be able to buy ready-made from the shops:

  • Houmous
  • Harissa

Recipes

Here are some representative recipes which you might like to try. They are highly customizable, and there are plenty more recipes you can build using the toolkit method. I specify the colours of some veggies as per my rainbow guideline, but most substitutions should work with negligible impact on texture and flavour.

Chickpea veggie wrap / rice bowl with satay sauce

  • Carrot, raw, grated
  • Yellow pepper, raw, sliced
  • Broccoli, raw or roasted, bitesize florets
  • Red cabbage, raw or roasted, chopped
  • Chickpeas or black turtle beans, raw
  • Satay sauce

Layer ingredients in a tortilla wrap or on a bed of rice.

Not Waldorf salad

  • Lettuce, raw, chopped
  • Yellow pepper, raw, sliced
  • Red onion, raw, sliced
  • Apple, raw, diced
  • Walnut, raw, chopped
  • Croutons
  • Mustard vinaigrette

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix to combine and ensure even sauce coating. Optionally rinse the onion to take the edge off.

Deluxe Arab salad

  • Cucumber, raw, finely chopped
  • Yellow pepper, raw, finely chopped
  • White / yellow onion, raw, finely chopped
  • Tomato, raw, finely chopped
  • Chickpeas, raw
  • Croutons or flatbread

For the sauce:

  • Tahini
  • Lemon juice

Add croutons to the salad or serve with a flatbread on the side or for wrapping.

Smashed chickpea sandwich

For the chickpeas:

  • Carrot, raw, grated
  • Chickpeas, raw, crushed
  • Lemon juice

For the rest of the sandwich:

  • Cucumber, raw, sliced
  • Lettuce, raw, whole leaves
  • Tortilla wrap or sliced sandwich bread

The chickpeas and lemon juice can be substituted with houmous, but best to add some partially-crushed chickpeas to improve the consistency.

Beetroot, oat and lentil burgers

For the patties, see my earlier recipe: https://jpreston.xyz/2020/09/30/beetroot-oat-lentil-burgers.html

For the burger stack:

  • Cucumber, raw, sliced
  • Tomato, raw, sliced
  • Carrot, raw, grated
  • Burger buns

Burrito or burrito bowl

For the salsa:

  • Tomato, raw, diced
  • White, yellow or purple onion, raw, diced
  • Orange pepper, raw, diced

For the wrap or bowl:

  • Spinach or coriander or parsley, raw, shredded
  • Sweetcorn, raw
  • Black turtle beans, boiled

The salsa can be raw (salsa fresca / pico de gallo) or cooked in a pan. Serve on a bed of rice or wrapped in a soft tortilla.

Spicy tomato falafel wrap / bowl

  • White, yellow or red onion, raw, sliced
  • Cucumber, raw, diced into matchsticks
  • Yellow pepper, raw, sliced
  • Baked falafel
  • Spicy tomato and carrot sauce

Optionally rinse the onion to remove some astringency, probably not needed for red onions. Serve on a bed of rice or wrapped in a tortilla.